The production of fizz by way of secondary fermentation in bottle is nothing to be ignored in Alsace. More than one in every five wines forged from the region’s vines is filled with bubbles. Most recently (in the past 18 to 24 months), certain things have come to light. A salient spike has been witnessed, with Sparkling wine increasing from 15 to more than 20 per cent of the region’s annual wine production. This means that Alsace now ranks second in France with a yearly production of more than 30 million bottles.
Six grape varieties are permitted for the production of Crémant d’Alsace; Auxerrois, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Riesling. Chardonnay can only be used for Crémant and only Pinot Noir may be fermented to bottle a Rosé. More rules must be followed like grapes having to come from vines into its’ 3rd growing season and wines must rest a minimum nine months on the lees before bottling. Most lay longer, which helps to define this genre of Crémant’s creamy texture, matched in contrast by its stony, flinty and mineral style.
The effervescence of Crémant d’Alsace is known as prise de mousse. Basic wine is bottled with liqueur de tirage for second fermentation. Bottles are left to rest sur latte. Autolysis occurs and the dead yeast is removed by way of remuage. After aging on the fine lees, bottles are turned, deposits form in the collar, brought to the freezing point, evacuated by carbonic gas and replaced in volume by liqueur de dosage or liqueur d’expedition which yields a Crémant d’Alsace of three styles; Brut, Sec, or Demi-Sec. A balanced vintage for sparkling in 2012 yielded 270,000 hl of Crémant d’Alsace.
During my week in Alsace and with thanks to the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace (CIVA) I was able to taste more than 30 producer’s Crémant. Here are my notes on 14.
Jean-Marie Haag Crémant d’Alsace, tasted at Domaine Stentz-Buecher with Les diVINes d’Alsace
Exemplary bubbles from Soultzmatt in la Vallée Noble, 20 km south of Colmar, from out of clay-limestone soils. Grapes here are Pinot Blanc, Pinot Auxerrois, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. A close-knit aridity and platinum tang are pronounced in an idiomatic lees-inflected language with a lightly oxidized lilt. A retaining wall of freshness and a slice of bitter honey-almond tart round out the complexity, intended or not, with elevated levels of Pinot vibrations making themselves known. Calls for a must return to see if it’s a one-off or a truly significant house style. Drink alongside a salty buffet.
Valentin Zusslin Crémant D’Alsace Sans Souffre Brut Zero, tasted at Domaine Stentz-Buecher with Les diVINes d’Alsace
The old vines blend from Clos Liebenberg is predominantly Pinot Auxerrois (95 per cent) with minor amounts of Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. It’s important to note the non-sulphur designation in that the not insignificant practice takes the wine to another level of Crémant sophistication. There is a savoury nut character to the Auxerrois but never in a fat, round or blanched way. The caryopsis are not like an almond but more like a roasted pistachio upon the mid-palate. Moving forward it’s like the smell of a nut-based, warm cereal. It’s quite intoxicating and lingers well into the finish.
Louis Hauller Crémant D’Alsace, tasted at Domaine Stentz-Buecher with Les diVINes d’Alsace
From 100 per cent Chardonnay, this is a fine, subtle, stylish, finessed and elegant interpretation that is a different sort of Alsace discrimination. Spent 11 months on the lees and sports more citrus than most others. Subtle bubbles here, with less froth and more Chardonnay character. Very good length.
Sipp Mack Crémant D’Alsace Rosé, tasted at Domaine Stentz-Buecher with Les diVINes d’Alsace
The smell of strawberry cream and the crème fraiche sapidity by way of sudoric lees. Fun and characterful if a bit of an ancestral taste.
Albert Mann Crémant D’Alsace Brut 2011, tasted at Restaurant Le Théâtre, Colmar with Albert Mann’s Marie-Thérèse Barthelme
A four-squared Pinot affair, in Blanc (66 per cent), Auxerrois (16), Noir (12) and Gris (6). This from a bottle that had just been disgorged one week prior to tasting. Out of clay-limestone and sand soils in vineyards from Kientzheim and Wettolsheim. Like album art, the Mann label is a crucial, sixth sense aspect of the wine experience. The 2011 Crémant is the artwork of François Bruetschy, “like a turnstile of fireworks while projecting fine sparks.” The 2011 Mann is very fine, misty, delicate, wistful and waiting in longing for an amuse bouche of mackerel with choucroute in a can. The wine makes me long for a walk in the vines. @albertmannwines
Gustave Lorentz Crémant D’Alsace, tasted at Restaurant Le Théâtre, Colmar with George Lorentz
Though the label denotes this as non-vintage, the blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc is essentially from the 2011 vintage. This is what Lorentz describes as 2nd-tier house sparkling, with more ripeness in this bottle. That fruit maturity is all apple, with a minor note of oxidation and the full effect of 16 months on lees felt through texture. Once again the inclusion of Chardonnay takes the Crémant schematic condition to another level. Bring on the top-tier.
Louis Sipp Crémant D’Alsace Rosé, tasted at Restaurant Le Théâtre, Colmar with Etienne Sipp
The Sipp Crémant comes from various parcels in Ribeauvillé, from Weinbaum, Sulz and Rengelsbrunn. Etienne tells us it is made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir, playfully mocking the AOC’s rule that only that variety can be used for sparkling Rosé. Sipp’s Pinot is grown in mainly heavy and deep clay soils. Picked at optimum ripeness, this is fizz that has spent 18 months aging in bottle after not having gone the way of malolactic fermentation. The result is a dry, dense, savoury and layered Pinot Noir Rosé. This third Crémant in a group with Mann and Lorentz proves that though tonight is not a competition, we see that all three have won.
Paul Zinck Crémant D’Alsace, tasted at La Table du Gourmet, Riquewihr with Phillippe Zinck
An efficient, sparkling requiem for success in a blend of three vintages and varieties; Pinot Noir (60 per cent), Chardonnay (30) and Pinot Blanc (10). A soft receptive, inviting and proper amalgamation in which mousse apropos peach and soft French cream delight without needing to be tough or street savvy in any way. Crémant giving like une crème de luxe, to sip with Hummus, La Table de Gourmet style and with nary a difficult moment.
Domaine Bott-Geyl Crémant D’Alsace Cuvée Paul-Edouard Brut Millésime 2007, tasted at La Table du Gourmet, Riquewihr with Jean-Christophe Bott @JLBrendel
Jean-Christophe Bott’s may be the most complex and intriguing bottle of Crémant you would have a chance to taste in the course of a week in Alsace. Bott gathers top quality Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from growers then lays the fruit low for four years on their lees. The rich and sunny vintage is vinified in what is really an Extra Brut style without any dosage whatsoever. This is small production Alsatian bubbles (2500+ bottles) disgorged in 2011 and in very early stages of development. The acidity stands in upright attention while the fruit submits to wait. The rocks and salinity raise upwards to march in extreme lengths. A sublime match to an Amuse Bouche of Cured Watermelon, pistachio, basil and mustard flower.
Charles Baur Crémant d’Alsace, tasted at Restaurant L’Épicurien, Colmar with Arnaud Baur
After its second ferment this blend of Pinot Blanc (40 per cent), Auxerrois (40) and Chardonnay (20) spent a compages-inducing 24 months on the lees. This is Baur’s main cuvée for Crémant, always made from two vintages, in this case 2009 and 2010. Most definitive and classic for the appellation. Falls within the aromatic white fruit/white flower spectrum with flavours that tease ripe Mirabelle, apricot and peach. Soft, elegant, feminine, demurred and clean. Baur’s take is a Catherine wheel of Alsatian bubbles with “all the things you dream while spinning ’round.”
Audrey et Christian Binner Crémant d’Alsace KB, tasted at Restaurant L’Épicurien, Colmar with Christian Binner
Binner’s exotic-scented sparkling is from Kayserberg, “the emperor’s mountain,” next to the Schlossberg Grand Cru site. Old vines out of colder parcels more appropriate for making Crémant consist of Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. The terroir here is granitic and poor in soil, if that is what it can be called. The house style is quite oxidative and distinctively earthy, as if the rocks were breaking down into a fine, funky soil remineralization. The most terpenes yet from bubbles tasted in Alsace, with a bruised apple hematoma, a pickle of some colonialist kind and a spice cupboard to fill a curry recipe. In the end this is unusual, yet vivid and jazzy fizz.
Vins Schoenheitz Crémant d’Alsace Millesimé 2007, tasted on the steep slopes of the valley of Munster with Dominique, Henri and Adrien Schoenheitz
Primarily focused upon Pinot Auxerrois and righteously so, with just a 10 per cent buoyancy from Pinot Blanc. The combination of striking Auxerrois fruit grown on the estate’s (400-500m) high altitude steep slopes and a memorable Alsace vintage is just deadly. The varietal choice in low acidity out of a vintage with character and temper here translates to aridity (1 g/L residual sugar) and long on lees texture. Like a Ron Sexsmith ballad, a listen, one look at its bronze patina, one taste and you will “see the forest for the trees,” because there’s gold in them hills. Perfect timing to break out an all-natural, no dosage ’07, marked by gratuitous acidity and mountain verve. An auspicious start to a picnic in the hills. @VinsSchoenheitz
Pierre Frick Crémant d’Alsace 2013, tasted at Domain Pierre Frick with Jean-Pierre Frick
Jean-Pierre Frick poured two just bottled yet raw examples meant to set a perspective table for the 2013 finished wine that followed. The 50/50 Pinot Blanc et Noir (NV and 2013) were both picked ripe (nearly overripe), pressed direct and treated with nothing, nada, niente, zilch, rien. No sulphites, yeast or sugar. With zero dosage and opening too soon in evolution, these bottles were marked by arrested fermentation. The absence of the second fermentation meant for a flat, oxidative result. The experiment may have meant no Crémant but it helped to organize, define and ultimately assess the ’13. Same minimalist method but with a secondary ferment, this bottle (though warm) offered high citrus and biting, forceful, sharp acidity. When returned to an hour later and from a cold bottle, the wine was much brighter and atomically fresh. Frick’s method and style mean his sparkling must spend a minimum one year in bottle before it can be sold.
Pierre Frick Crémant d’Alsace 2012, tasted at Domaine Pierre Frick with Jean-Pierre Frick
One of JP’s “funny wines.” Once again, no sulphur but this time with natural yeasts. Notated by a slight coppery, salmon tinge and minimally oxidative, though in no way over the top. “My idea was a dry Crémant but he’s not dry. C’est la vie.” To Frick this is a wine for young and really old people. Toasted brioche, buttered toast and almond extract are joined by a late arriving, very interesting, savoury sweetness. The finish smoulders, with that ever-bearing herbiage adding another layer. This Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc split comes in at 12.5 – 13.5 per cent alcohol. Frick doesn’t really know. “I write 13 per cent because I just have to put something on the bottle.”
Good to go!